Essay

Writing Like a White Guy

On language, race, and poetry.

by Jaswinder Bolina
Writing Like a White Guy

My father says I should use a pseudonym. “They won’t publish you if they see your name. They’ll know you’re not one of them. They’ll know you’re one of us.” This has never occurred to me, at least not in a serious way. “No publisher in America’s going to reject my poems because I have a foreign name,” I reply. “Not in 2002.” I argue, “These are educated people. My name won’t be any impediment.” Yet in spite of my faith in the egalitarian attitude of editors and the anonymity of book contests, I understand my father’s angle on the issue.

With his beard shaved and his hair shorn, his turban undone and left behind in Bolina Doaba, Punjab—the town whose name we take as our own—he lands at Heathrow in 1965, a brown boy of 18 become a Londoner. His circumstance then must seem at once exhilarating and also like drifting in a lifeboat: necessary, interminable. I imagine the English of the era sporting an especially muted and disdainful brand of racism toward my alien father, his brother and sister-in-law, toward his brother-in-law and sister, his nieces and nephews, and the other Indians they befriend on Nadine Street, Charlton, just east of Greenwich. The sense of exclusion arrives over every channel, dull and constant.

At least one realtor, a couple of bankers, and a few foremen must have a different attitude. One white supervisor at the industrial bakery my father labors in invites him home for dinner. The Brit wants to offer an introduction to his single daughters. He knows my father’s a hard worker, a trait so commonly attributed to the immigrant it seems sometimes a nationality unto itself, and maybe the quietude of the nonnative speaker appeals to the man’s sense of civility. As a result he finds my father humble, upstanding, his complexion a light beach sand indicative of a vigor exceeding that of the pale English suitors who come calling. In my imagination, my father’s embarrassed and placid demeanor, his awkward formality in that setting, is charming to the bashful, giggly daughters, and this impresses the supervisor even further. But nothing much comes of that evening. My father never visits again. He marries my mother, another Sikh Punjabi also, a few years later, but that event is evidence that one Englishman considered my father the man, not my father the “paki.”

When he moves to hodgepodge Chicago nine years after arriving in England, he becomes another denizen of the immigrant nation, the huddled masses. He might be forgiven for thinking he will not be excluded here, but he isn’t so naïve. America in 1974 is its own version of the UK’s insular empire, though the nature of its exclusion is different, is what we call institutional. He knows that in America nobody should be rejected, not unabashedly and without some counterfeit of a reason, but all my father’s nearly three decades as a machinist at the hydraulics plant near the airport teach him is that economies boom and economies bust, and if your name isn’t “Bill” or “Earl” or “Frank Malone,” you don’t get promoted. You mind the machines. “Bills” and “Earls” supervise. “Frank” is the name the bosses go by, all of them hired after my dad but raised higher. So when my father suggests I use a pseudonym, he’s only steadying my two-wheeler, only buying me a popsicle from the cart at Foster Avenue Beach. This is only an extension of covering my tuition, of paying my room and board.

At the time, I’m only a year or so into an MFA. I stop by the office of a friend, an older white poet in my department. Publication to me feels impossible then, and the friend means to be encouraging when he says, “With a name like Jaswinder Bolina, you could publish plenty of poems right now if you wrote about the first-generation, minority stuff. What I admire is that you don’t write that kind of poetry.” He’s right. I don’t write “that kind” of poetry. To him, this is upstanding, correct, what a poet ought to do. It’s indicative of a vigor exceeding that of other minority poets come calling. It turns out I’m a hard worker too. I should be offended—if not for myself, then on behalf of writers who do take on the difficult subject of minority experience in their poetry—but I understand that my friend means no ill by it. To his mind, embracing my difference would open editorial inboxes, but knowing that I tend to eschew/exclude/deny “that kind” of subject in my poetry, he adds, “This’ll make it harder for you.” When, only a few months later, my father—who’s never read my poems, whose fine but mostly functional knowledge of English makes the diction and syntax of my work difficult to follow, who doesn’t know anything of the themes or subjects of my poetry—tells me to use another name, he’s encouraging also. He means: Let them think you’re a white guy. This will make it easier for you.

*

The one thing I least believe about race in America is that we can disregard it. I’m nowhere close to alone in this, but the person I encounter far more often than the racist—closeted or proud—is the one who believes race isn’t an active factor in her thinking, isn’t an influence on his interaction with the racial Other. Such blindness to race seems unlikely, but I suspect few of us entirely understand why it’s so improbable. I’m not certain either, but I’ve been given some idea. At a panel discussion in 2004, a professor of political philosophy, Caribbean-born with a doctorate from the University of Toronto, explains that he never understood why the question in America is so often a question of race. A scholar of Marxist thinking, he says in nearly every other industrialized nation on Earth, the first question is a question of class, and accordingly class is the first conflict. He says it wasn’t until he moved to the United States in the early ’70s—about the same time my father arrived—that he intellectually and viscerally understood that America is a place where class historically coincides with race. This, he says, is the heaviest legacy of slavery and segregation.

To many immigrants, the professor and my father included, this conflation between success and skin color is a foreign one. In their native lands, where there exists a relative homogeneity in the racial makeup of the population or a pervasive mingling of races, the “minorities” of America are classed based on socioeconomic status derived from any number of factors, and race is rarely, if ever, principal in these. You can look down on anybody even though they share your skin color if you have land enough, wealth enough, caste and education enough. It’s only arriving in England that the Indian—who might not even recognize the descriptor “Indian,” preferring instead a regional or religious identity to a national one—realizes anyone resembling him is subject to the derision “coolie.” It’s only in America that such an immigrant discovers any brown-skinned body can have a “camel fucker” or a “sand nigger” hurled at him from a passing car—a bit of cognitive dissonance that’s been directed at me on more than one occasion. The racially African but ethnically Other philosophy professor understands the oddness of this as well as anyone. He explains that in the United States, as anywhere, the first question remains a question of class, but the coincidence between class and color makes the first American social conflict a conflict of race. As such, for the racial immigrant and his offspring, racial difference need be mitigated whenever possible, if only to lubricate the cogs of class mobility: nearer to whiteness, nearer to wealth.

If the racial Other aspires to equal footing on the socioeconomic playing field, he is tasked with forcing his way out of the categorical cul-de-sac that his name and appearance otherwise squeeze him into. We call the process by which he does this “assimilation.” Though the Latin root here—shared with the other word “similar”—implies that the process is one of becoming absorbed or incorporated, it is a process that relies first on the negation of one identity in order to adopt another. In this sense, assimilation is a destructive rather than constructive process. It isn’t a come-as-you-are proposition, a simple matter of being integrated into the American milieu because there exists a standing invitation to do so. Rather, assimilation first requires refuting assumptions the culture makes about the immigrant based on race, and in this sense assimilation requires the erasure of one’s preexisting cultural identity even though that identity wasn’t contingent upon race in the first place.

The first and perhaps essential step in assimilating into any culture is the successful adoption of the host country’s language. What’s unusual in America is that this is no different for the immigrant than for the native-born nonwhite. This is most obvious when I consider African Americans, whose language is variously described as “urban” (as in “of the slums of the inner city”), “street” (as in “of the gutter”), and “Ebonic” (as in “of ebony, of blackness”). These descriptors imply that whatever it is, black vernacular isn’t English. Rather, it’s “broken English,” which is of course what we also call the English of the nonnative speaker. I’m tempted to categorize so-called “countrified” or “redneck” dialects similarly, except I remember that any number of recent U.S. presidents and presidential candidates capable in that vernacular are regarded as more down-to-earth and likable rather than less well-spoken or intelligent. It seems that such white dialect serves as evidence of charisma, charm, and folksiness rather than of ignorance.

In 2007, the eventual vice president campaigning in the primary election against the eventual president says, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” The ensuing kerfuffle is almost entirely unsurprising. Though the white candidate believes he’s merely describing the candidate of color and doing so with ample objectivity and perhaps even with generosity, the description implies that the black man’s appearance and eloquence constitute an exception to his blackness, which is a function of genetics, which only further suggests that the black candidate is an exception to his basic nature. The implication is that he is being praised for his approximate whiteness. Not shockingly, this very conflation of his eloquence with white racial identity leads pundits in another context to ask the obnoxious question, “But is he black enough?” The conundrum the candidate faces is that he need be an exceptional speaker and writer, but part of the “exceptional” here is the idea that he’s an “exception” to his race. He has co-opted the language of whiteness. If he then neglects to take on the subject of race with that language, with the fierce urgency of now, he might further be accused of rejecting his own racial identity. Is he a candidate or a black candidate? If it’s the former, he might not be “black enough.” If it’s the latter, he can’t win.

In a country where class and race structurally overlap, what we call “standard” English reflexively becomes the English of whiteness rather than simply the English of the educated or privileged classes. When I adopt the language I’m taught in prep school, in university, and in graduate school, I’m adopting the English language, but in the States, that language is intrinsically associated with one race over any another. By contrast, in the England of history, the one prior to the more recent influx of immigrants from its imperial colonies, Oxford English is spoken by subjects as white as those who bandy about in Cockney. Adeptness of language usage isn’t a function then of melanin but of socioeconomic location. Color isn’t the question; class is. Unlike the Cockney of England or the dialects of India, none of which are contingent upon racial difference, alternate dialects in American English are inherently racialized. Assimilation in America then comes to mean the appropriation of a specific racial identity by way of language. The conundrum for the poet of color becomes no different than the one that faces the candidate of color: Am I a writer or a minority writer?

*

The day I’m born, my father engages in the American custom of handing out cigars to the “Bills” and “Earls” and “Franks” of the factory floor, even though he has never smoked in his life. Smoking is anathema to his Sikh Punjabi identity. Drinking, on the other hand, is most certainly not, and he gets gleefully and mercilessly drunk with his brothers at home. He boasts everywhere, “My son will be president.” He believes it. Twenty-four years later, in 2002, when he counsels me to use a pseudonym, he knows I’m already adept in the language. I’ve been educated in it, and in spite of all his diligence and intelligence, this is a key he’s never been given. I talk like them. I write like them. I’m an agile agent in the empire so long as nobody grows wise. He no longer expects a presidency, but he sees no limit to potential success in my chosen field, except for the limits placed on me by my racial difference from the dominant culture. He doesn’t consider the possibility that I write about race in my work, that I might want to embrace the subject, because he knows, like the candidate of black Kenyan and white Kansan bloodlines, I’ve been conditioned to resist making race the essential issue.

And it’s true. The manner with which I avoid the subject of race in my first book is nearly dogmatic. Race is a subject I don’t offer any attention to. To do so would seem only to underscore my Otherness, which would only result in the same sorts of requisite exclusions I experienced growing up in mostly white schools and neighborhoods. Assimilation in those circumstances isn’t a choice so much political as it is necessary. Some remnant of a survival instinct kicks in, and one’s best efforts are directed at joining rather than resisting the herd. To be racialized is to be marginalized. When another Asian kid joins the playground, we unwittingly vie to out-white each other. This tactic I learned from practice but also from my immigrant family. When your numbers are few, assimilation is the pragmatic gambit.

It’s not something that we engage in without a queasy feeling. When my father suggests I Wite-Out my name, he’s entirely aware that he’s suggesting I relinquish the name he and my mother gave me. This isn’t an easy thing, but growing up, I’ve never been kept from doing what the “American” kids do—though I’m born here and though my parents have long been citizens, “American” remains a descriptor my family uses to signify whiteness. Like the white kids, I join the Cub Scouts and play football at recess, I attend birthday parties at my American classmates’ houses and go to junior high socials. In high school, after years of elementary school mockery, I attempt—not unlike the young Barry Obama—to anglicize my name, going by “Jason” instead, a stratagem that those who become my friends quickly reject after only a few weeks. I go to the homecoming dance. I go to the prom. I stay out past curfew and grow my hair long. I insist that my mother close all the bedroom doors when she cooks so my clothes don’t reek of cumin and turmeric. I resist any suggestion that I study the sciences in order to prepare for a career in medicine or engineering. I never meet an Indian girl; there aren’t any in the philosophy and English departments I’m a member of anyway. My parents know I’m bereft of their culture. They must at times feel a lucid resentment, a sense of rejection and exclusion. Their son has become one of the English-speakers, as “Frank” or “Bill” to them as any American. But this, they know, is necessary. If the first generation is to succeed here, it’s by resisting the ingrained cultural identity and mores of its immigrant forebears. If their son is to become president, my parents know it won’t happen while he’s wearing a turban. This is why they never keep me from engaging American culture, though it quickly comes to supplant their own. Assimilation is pragmatic, but pragmatism calls for concessions that compound and come to feel like a chronic ache.

*

It’s because of the historical convergence of race and class in America that we conflate the language of the educated, ruling classes with the language of a particular racial identity. If I decouple the two, as I might be able to do in another nation, I realize that what’s being described isn’t the language of whiteness so much as the language of privilege. When I say “privilege” here, I mean the condition of not needing to consider what others are forced to consider. The privilege of whiteness in America—particularly male, heteronormative whiteness—is the privilege to speak from a blank slate, to not need to address questions of race, gender, sexuality, or class except by choice, to not need to acknowledge wherefrom one speaks. It’s the position of no position, the voice from nowhere or from everywhere. In this, it is Godlike, and if nothing else, that’s saying something.

To the poet, though, the first question isn’t one of class or color. The first question is a question of language. Poetry—as Stéphane Mallarmé famously tells the painter and hapless would-be poet Edgar Degas—is made of words, not ideas. However, to the poet of color or the female poet, to the gay or transgendered writer in America, and even to the white male writer born outside of socioeconomic privilege, a difficult question arises: “Whose language is it?” Where the history of academic and cultural institutions is so dominated by white men of means, “high” language necessarily comes to mean the language of whiteness and a largely wealthy, heteronormative maleness at that. The minority poet seeking entry into the academy and its canon finds that her language is deracialized/sexualized/gendered/classed at the outset. In trafficking in “high” English, writers other than educated, straight, white, male ones of privilege choose to become versed in a language that doesn’t intrinsically or historically coincide with perceptions of their identities. It’s true that minority poets are permitted to bring alternative vernaculars into our work. Poets from William Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads to Frank O’Hara in his “Personism: a manifesto” demand as much by insisting that poetry incorporate language nearer to conversational speech than anything overly elevated. Such calls for expansions of literary language in conjunction with continuing experiments by recent generations of American poets are transforming the canon for sure, but this leaves me and perhaps others like me in a slightly awkward position. I don’t possess a vernacular English that’s significantly different from that of plain old Midwestern English. As such, it seems I’m able to write from a perspective that doesn’t address certain realities about myself, and this makes me queasy as anything. The voice in my head is annoyed with the voice in my writing. The voice in my head says I’m disregarding difference, and this feels like a denial of self, of reality, of a basic truth.

It isn’t exactly intentional. It’s a product of being privileged. In the 46 years since my father left Punjab, the 40 or so years since my mother left also, my parents clambered the socioeconomic ladder with a fair amount of middle-class success. We’re not exactly wealthy, but I do wind up in prep school instead of the public high school, which only isolates me further from those with a shared racial identity. Later I attend university, where I’m permitted by my parents’ successes to study the subjects I want to study rather than those that might guarantee future wealth. I don’t need to become a doctor or a lawyer to support the clan. I get to major in philosophy and later attend graduate school in creative writing. Through all of this, though I experience occasional instances of bigotry while walking down streets or in bars, and though I study in programs where I’m often one of only two or three students of color, my racial identity is generally overlooked or disregarded by those around me. I’ve become so adept in the language and culture of the academy that on more than one occasion when I bring up the fact of my race, colleagues reply with some variation of “I don’t think of you as a minority.” Or, as a cousin who’s known me since infancy jokes, “You’re not a minority. You’re just a white guy with a tan.” What she means is that my assimilation is complete. But she can’t be correct. Race is simply too essential to the American experience to ever be entirely overlooked. As such, I can’t actually write like a white guy any more than I can revise my skin color. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that if a reader were to encounter much of my work not knowing my name or having seen a photograph of me, she might not be faulted for incorrectly assigning the poems a white racial identity. This is a product of my language, which is a product of my education, which is a product of the socioeconomic privilege afforded by my parents’ successes. The product of all those factors together is that the writing—this essay included—can’t seem to help sounding white.

*

Recently, I was invited to give a few poetry readings as part of a literary festival taking place in a rural part of the country. I borrow my father’s compact SUV and let its GPS guide me for a few days on the road. I spend afternoons and evenings reading poems with local and visiting writers in front of small audiences at community centers and public libraries. The audiences are largely made up of kind, white-haired, white-skinned locals enthusiastic to hear us read from and speak about our work, even when they’ve never heard of most of us. They at least appreciate poetry, a rarity I’m grateful for. During the introductions that preface each event, even the organizers who’ve invited me have difficulty getting my name right, and in one school library, I enunciate it over and over again. I say, “Jas as in the first part of justice; win as in the opposite of defeat; der, which rhymes with err, meaning to be mistaken.” I say, “JasWINder,” lilting the second syllable, and smile as about a dozen audience members mouth each syllable along with me until they feel they have it right. When they do, they grin broadly. After each event, I chat with them one or two at a time, and I do my best to reflect their warmth. They’re complimentary about the work, and though I don’t expect they’re a demographic that’ll especially like my poems—even when you write poems like a white guy, you might not be writing poems everyone will like—the compliments are earnest.

Still, in all this pleasantness, the awkward moment occurs more than once. It’s some variation on a recurring question I get in town after town. The question usually comes up as a matter of small talk while I’m signing a book or shaking someone’s hand. No one delivers it better, with so much beaming warmth and unwitting irony, than the woman who says she enjoyed my poems very much and follows this quickly with an admiring “You’re so Americanized, what nationality are you?” She doesn’t pick up on the oxymoron in her question. She doesn’t hear the hint of tiredness in my reply. “I was born and raised in Chicago, but my parents are from northern India.” Once more, I ought to be offended, but I’m not really. Hers is an expression of curiosity that’s born of genuine interest rather than of sideshow spectacle. I’m the only nonwhite writer at the events I participate in. I’m the only one who gets this question. It makes me bristle, but I understand where it comes from.

After my brief tour is over, I make the 500-mile trip to suburban Chicago to return the Toyota to my parents. I eat dinner at home, and after, my father drops me back in the city. Invariably, the trip down the Kennedy Expressway toward the skyline makes him nostalgic for his early, underpaid days in small apartments on the North Side, his city long before it became my city. He tells a story or two, and we talk as usual about the news, politics, the latest way my uncle annoys him. He goes on a while before his attention returns to the moment, and he asks how my trip went. I tell him it went well. I say the audiences were kind and the drives were long. I say, out there, the country looks like a painting of itself. I don’t mention what the woman asked, the recurring question echoed by others. “You’re so Americanized, what nationality are you?” It won’t matter that she asked it while eagerly shaking my hand. It won’t matter that she asked while asking me also to sign a copy of my book for her. It won’t matter that she offered her gratitude that I’d come all that way to read in her hamlet on the outskirts of America. Though she might have meant the opposite, he’ll hear the question as the old door closing again. The doorway, then, is both welcome and departure, is border guard and border crossing, and though I’m not on the woman’s side of it, I’m not entirely on my father’s side either.

Perhaps for this reason, there’s the continuing sense that I ought to write about race even as I resent that I need be troubled by the subject in the first place. After all, I should permit myself to be a poet first and a minority second, same as any male, white writer. But even as I attempt to ignore the issue altogether, I find myself thinking about it, and I realize now that this fact more than any other makes it so that I can’t write like a white poet. Writing is as much the process of arriving at the point of composition as it is the act of composition itself. That my awareness of racial identity so often plays a part in my thinking about my writing makes it so that I can’t engage in that writing without race being a live wire. Even one’s evasions are born of one’s fixations. More to the point, what appears to be an evasion might not be exactly that at all. John Ashbery doesn’t make a subject matter of his sexuality, but this doesn’t mean he’s unable to inhabit the identity of a gay writer. Similarly, even though Mary Ruefle might not take on gender identity overtly in a given poem, it doesn’t make that poem an adversary to the cause of feminism. I don’t bring all this up to absolve myself exactly, though it’s true I’m trying to figure out a way to alleviate a guilt I’m annoyed to feel in the first place. I imagine male, white poets will recognize this feeling. I bet any poet of conscience who doesn’t actively write about sociopolitical subjects knows this feeling, but the poet is trying to write the original thing, and that originality might not take up orbit around a more obvious facet of a poet’s identity. When any of us doesn’t take on such a subject in our writing, it might not be because we neglected to do so. Rather, it might be that the subject informed every bit of our deciding to write about something else.

More importantly, when it comes to writing about difficult issues of identity, especially those with far-reaching political and cultural implications, maybe the choice needn’t be a dichotomous one. Maybe I don’t need to choose between being the brown guy writing like a white guy or the brown guy writing about being Othered. Instead, maybe I need only be a brown guy writing out his study of language and the self—the same as the Paterson doctor, the Hartford insurance executive, the lesbian expat in Paris, the gay Jew from New Jersey, the male white poet teaching at the University of Houston, or the straight black female professor reading her poem at the American president’s inauguration. Though “high” English might be born of a culture once dominated by straight white men of privilege, each of us wields our English in ways those men might not have imagined. This is okay. Language, like a hammer, belongs to whoever picks it up to build or demolish. Whether we take language in hand to deconstruct itself, to confess a real experience or an imagined one, or to meditate upon the relationship between the individual and the political, social, historical, or cosmological, ownership of our language need not be bound up with the history of that language. Whether I choose to pound on the crooked nail of race or gender, self or Other, whether I decide on some obscure subject while forgoing the other obvious one, when I write, the hammer belongs to me.

Originally Published: November 16, 2011

COMMENTS (38)

On November 16, 2011 at 9:12pm Hugh Miller wrote:
Nice piece, Jaswinder!

On November 17, 2011 at 8:19am Michael Broek wrote:
Bolina's article provides a compelling voice in an often contentious but important debate, avoiding the hyperbole that often accompanies this issue. As a white, male, middle-class "heteronormative" poet with feelings, (what I like to call a WIMF), I feel like the range of possible subjects available to such writers is actually more circumscribed than Bolina might imagine, but then I have to agree with Bolina's conclusion. The nature of poetic language itself, the process of composition, holds within itself the possibility of self-definition.

On November 17, 2011 at 10:39pm Adi wrote:
This was fantastic. Thank you.

On November 18, 2011 at 7:14am Rhonda wrote:
"Language, like a hammer, belongs to whoever picks it up
to build or demolish.
...when I write, the hammer belongs to me."

I LOVE these words. Great piece.

On November 18, 2011 at 2:35pm karin wrote:
Well said.

On November 18, 2011 at 3:56pm kip wrote:
The hammer belongs to you for a moment, but:
"For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change." - Audre Lorde (1984)

On November 18, 2011 at 10:21pm Jason wrote:
I agree with Rhonda, those words hit me too. Well done, Mr. Bolina

On November 19, 2011 at 7:34pm jmendez wrote:
Outstandingly well put. Thank you.

On November 20, 2011 at 7:40pm Sam Chell wrote:
Language belongs to whoever picks it up to build or demolish; language also belongs
to no one: it has a serendipitous, protean life of its own. The quote by Lorde assigns
to language an agency and ownership that it doesn't deserve or possess. Moreover,
what are the alternatives? (I ask this as I recall word for word Chaucer's opening
sentence to the Prologue announcing the birth of Sping, building to the revitalization
of the human spirit, and in effect welcoming by example the arrival of the language of
Shakespeare and Joyce, Blake and Faulkner, Baldwin and O'Connor.

There are no limits. Chaucer is the Wife or the Pardoner; Shakespeare is Cordelia or
Lear; Faulkner is Benjy or Quentin or Jason or Dilsey or tributaries of related
consciousness taking us to the self-destructive and unstated but unmistakable voices
of Mr. and Mrs. Compson representing the decay of the old (patriarchal) order and of
brave sister Caddie representing the persistence of the new one shaped by brother
Benjy's timeless (literally) world.

The writer is free to choose her own speaking personae; or to invent his name as
scribbler (whether Johnson or Ondaatje, Donna Tartt or Tammy Bland). Until the
present millennium, even the academic conversations closing out the previous era
could not alter in the least the flow of human consciousness that is language (which is
not to deny the inevitable cesspools that collect behind blockades erected by human
pride).

But now the question must be put in different terms. It's no longer a question of
whose language (and, if language is consciousness, never was). The question since
the new millennium can't be the old red herring about language and ethnicity,
language and gender, language and social class, language and nationality but one of
greater universality and urgency: given the increasing digitalization and automation
of all language along with proliferating texts, what is the point of language apart of
assuring the functioning a neo-mediascape without past, present, future? source or
direction? With the commoditization of language and the awakening to an unfair,
impractical and untenable distribution of wealth favoring the privileged 5%, the
discord between the old economy and the new language of the machine will level the
playing field, obliterating even cultural differences as the digitalization of the word
precedes the business of the world.

On November 21, 2011 at 9:06am Anindita Sengupta wrote:
Wonderful piece.

On November 21, 2011 at 11:40am Allison wrote:
A thought provoking article.

To your writing teacher who said “What I admire is that you don’t write that kind of poetry,” I’d like to ask: if you, a white American male, write about, say, going to a baseball game and eating a hotdog in America, your subject matter would be invisible—not a comment on Otherness. But if you publish about going to a baseball game and eating a hotdog in a culture where that is foreign, then your subject matter is suddenly exotic and you are suddenly defined as a “minority” writer. If your subject matter remains the same but you physically switch cultures, can you go from being authentic to playing to the market without changing a word of your work?

Perhaps one issue is that “otherness” is externally placed on writers who are coming from an internal perspective that is—and is allowed to be—a composite of many things. In the sense that writers are individuals with unique experiences, we are all “others.”

On November 22, 2011 at 12:13pm jay wrote:
I am neither a poet nor for that matter much of a consumer of poetry; although I do write a lot.

I stumbled accidentally on this essay when I vaguely recalled a poem my mother used to recite called Abu Ben Adam and in researching it was guided to a few poetry sites.

Thanks for the very valuable insight. Although I live in Silicon Valley and have for decades experienced an enormous amount of multiculturalism, as a White guy, I am still curious about the experience of my non-white friends and colleagues.

I happen to work and socialize with a lot of people from India. So this is a gift with which I can perhaps be still more sensitive toward the possibility of their feeling "different" while I continue to be the "relaxed - privileged" (not as in wealthy) person I was born as.

On November 22, 2011 at 10:27pm Braden wrote:
This was a well written piece. I just wanted to share that in my opinion,
the idea of race is a cultural construction that implies a recognition of
biological difference whereas the idea of ethnicity is an entirely different
issue. We identify with ethnicity as much as we get to choose to take on
the rituals of family or customs of those surrounding us. Ethnicity, not
race is the word I use to describe my socioeconomic juxtaposition or
"assimilation." I've heard the argument that race does not exist and it
often comes across as an ignorant one but I rather like the idea that
race is a (now) permanent illusion and ethnicity is a much better word
for what we often mean when we say race. As a writer and artist, I
believe that we are handed the subject of race as something we may be
forced to confront as not WASP creators, whereas we have slightly more
of an option, if motivated or inspired to summon ethnicity when writing
or creating. Both can be tools, barricades or simply the other folks in
the room and in the head when writing. There is no obligation in art,
only filters in the eyes of the readers, observers or critics. What's
written is after all a product of everything the writer is made of and
exposed to whether she knows it or not. The critic describes herself by
stating how she feels about a piece. Good art moves us to feel
something and if the feeling has something to do with race and or
ethnicity, great. If not, it was still created by someone of a certain race,
ethnicity, gender and age. A pseudonym would be a choice and
depending on the writer, reader or critic, it could mean an infinite
amount of things. It is important to be decisive sometimes, both in
personhood and art and I think this article does a beautiful job of
decisively breaking down an almost unnamable issue. Thanks

On November 25, 2011 at 1:33am Gina Vendetti wrote:
Jaswinder, your compelling piece describes the experience of being in your shoes and brain. Your gift of verbal facility and precision allows a greater empathic journey for the reader than a drier essay might, and my guess is that your other writing is similarly gifted.

You mention the fields of medicine and engineering more than once. As a physician, my Indian colleagues are among the more well-represented ethnic groups. There is no second thought given to a candidate for medical school or scientific publication based on name.

It was not always that way. There were pioneers whose names were mangled and who were not respected.

The fields that are not yet highly populated by diverse groups must be diversified. Tag. You are it. Pseudonyms are for romance writers and those in mortal danger from political oppression.

On November 25, 2011 at 7:40pm Ellen wrote:
In your last paragraph, you arrive (sort of) at the point that came to
me somewhere in the middle: you can write about whatever you like,
not like a white guy or from a "minority" perspective, but from the POV
of the person you are, 1st generation, confronting these issues even
as you take up the supposedly universal questions of literature. What
I mean to say is, the substance of your piece, which is truly good,
might inform your poetry to fine effect--if that's what you cared to do.
And if not, you've clearly got the chops to go where the past greats of
English poetry have gone--but why bother, if they've already been
there, which is another theme of poetry, I suppose.

On November 25, 2011 at 7:55pm manny cartola wrote:
Honestly I found this long-winded. It has be said before a million times... but it still needs to be repeated. But why approach it this way?

I catually have read in journals the author bio where it has said "Whitey Smith was raised Presbyterian." While his religious sect might have some bearing on his poetry I really don't understand it. The problem is that American poetry has a brand.

Some of the Harlem renaissance poets, in my view, produced better poetry than much of the more "mainstream" 20th century poets. But they are never really 'considered' a part of that "American" poetry. This is the lineage of the Emersonian-Anglo-Farmer type and all its avatara, Frost being the main (even though this was a consciously faked-until-real persona).

Why publish in the whitewash anyway? For what? recognition by the white? This is nonsense. India has a textual/poetic tradition older than the "Western Canon" anyway and without all the neurotic "isms"...

Yes you should change your name for publishing. George Eliot did, even Ovid went by abbreviations of his full name. Don't be afraid to be like VS Naipal and say what you want and offend who you will. And I would like to add that POETRY magazine still has this white baby-boomer thing... that's all they publish... I won't name names but they really like this. Maybe its their audience... I don't know.

-m

On November 26, 2011 at 8:13pm Ian Fraser wrote:
Let me tell you something. Racism is not confined to white people nor to America or the West in general. In 1990 I went to live and work in the Middle East, I will not mention the name of the country in case you think I am being prejudicial. At no stage in my stay in that country was I accepted as a social equal. Maybe they were afraid of me and thought that I would rape their daughters or spread subservive Western ideas of democracy or Christianity, I don't know. I was not encouraged to learn their language (Arabic) nor was I allowed freedom of religion. I think the fact that I worked for an American company (though I am not American) was a considerable hinderance, as the American government backed (and still backs) their repressive dicatorship).
The company's policies were blatantly racist. Americans and nationals of the company I am talking about were paid more than Europians, who were paid more than Palestinians. All were paid more than Paksistanis (despite being mainly Moslem), Philipinos and others, despite the fact that we all did the same job. There many other forms of discrimination practised.
I once witnessed a scene of extreme violence in which the....ani police brutally attacked a group of foreign nationals who were simply trying to board a train at the same time as ......ani nationals.
Don't let liberal notions of culture stand in your way. The world is an ugly place. And you are not the ugliest....

On November 26, 2011 at 8:44pm Kentiya wrote:
With a name like Kentiya and a skin color to match, I understand
completely. This is wonderful writing.

On November 29, 2011 at 11:15am jlcm wrote:
Wonderful, thoughtful essay, Jaswinder. However, I do want to
comment on this: I’m tempted to categorize so-called “countrified” or
“redneck” dialects similarly, except I remember that any number of
recent U.S. presidents and presidential candidates capable in that
vernacular are regarded as more down-to-earth and likable rather
than less well-spoken or intelligent. It seems that such white dialect
serves as evidence of charisma, charm, and folksiness rather than of
ignorance.

Remember, those presidents (Clinton, I'm assuming, Bush II--I don't
think you're referring to Jackson...although his accent was real and he
was tortured in the press for his manner and speech), went to Ivy
League schools, and their "redneck" language is a performance. Yes,
Clinton's was likely authentic at some point, but he learned, as you
did, to "talk white." Bush II was never a "lower class" person--his
father was an Ivy Leaguer, too--he flavored his speech with language
he heard around him, enough to sound like he might be one of the
good ole boys. I can tell you, as a person who didn't go to college (a
state school) until I was 37, that a rural, Southern-ish, working class
accent certainly does incur the kinds of disrespect you mention. I had
people from the Albany, NY DHS call me up and put me on
speakerphone so everyone in the office could be amused at my
ignorant accent-the woman who placed the call, my case worker,
actually told me that's what was going on. I am white-ish by
appearance and heritage, but most times, North of the Mason-Dixon,
people assume (on the phone), by my name and my accent, either that
I am black or that I am just an ignorant cracker, and it is easy to tell
which one by the way they spoke to me (neither mode was pleasant).
There is no doubt that I have the privilege of whiteness when I am
physically present in the room, but it's not the same privilege of
whiteness assumed by those presidents you speak of, nor even that of
a middle-class white person's, male or female--or of a working class
white male's. Class, gender, and regional bigotry are intertwined. It's
all so very complicated, and I'm grateful for your essay. (PS: I've
learned to write white middle class, too--I think.)

On November 29, 2011 at 2:08pm Nemo wrote:
I enjoyed reading your essay even though I disagree on some points. American literati love to glamorize what they consider "exotic." Foreign-sounding names are just one example. "White guy" names, especially of the anglo-saxon variety, may actually be a handicap in today's multi-cultural society. And, in truth, white guys (and white gals) are not really white, but are various tones of peach. That means they are "people of color" too.

On November 29, 2011 at 7:24pm Shannon wrote:
Beautifully articulated. I have to admit that one of the biggest compliments I have ever received about my writing was when someone told me they couldn't tell I was a white female by my work. To this day I am not sure how to take that remark but choose to receive it as a compliment since to me it proves that assimilation can go both ways.

On December 2, 2011 at 6:00am Emma H. wrote:
Beautiful and thought-provoking piece, thank you for putting it out here.

On December 2, 2011 at 11:04am Sid wrote:
Jas...what an excellent essay! Thank you, thank you and thank you. To say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and that it rung truths close to my own thoughts of late (about writing) would be an understatement of gross proportion...

Have a great weekend.

CHeers,

S.

On December 2, 2011 at 5:59pm Conrad DiDiodato wrote:
Please see my reply to Bolina's article at http://didiodatoc.blogspot.com/2011/11/poetry-and-racial-boundaries-is-it.html

On December 3, 2011 at 2:56pm Venetia Sjogren wrote:
Sir,

I found your piece well-written; in many ways, your
story is mine.

As a writer of color, I often tell people that I am an
amalgam of several different cultures but many want to
label me an African-American poet. African-American? I
was born in Panama, have a Swedish maiden name and my
native language is Spanish. My father was a PHD my
mother has her Masters but whites assume that I grew up
in some urban locale.

I self-identify as an American but oh no - that's not
good enough. I have to be an AFRICAN Americannnnnnnnn...

Sometimes, when I am feeling especially annoyed, I ask
the person what they call an immigrant from Africa.
African-African-American. It all becomes so damn
ridiculous.

On December 4, 2011 at 4:01pm leialoha perkins wrote:
Well done, J. Bolina!
Having gone from a very small town in the Pacific to Boston --
through Mt. Holyoke College (So. Hadley, Mass.), considered elite and
snobbish (it is not snobbish, but can look it), then Penn (Philadelphia),
considered elite and choice (it is, and because (then) with 22,000
students, too big to be simply classified) -- I agree with you: your
writing defines you, as you yearn to be and may be; but not all agree.
From the disagreements, one can learn a lot about surviving and
flourishing. The point is: others are, too. The learning isnʻt one
sided. I think itʻs a gift to be able to "imitate" anotherʻs voice, such
as novelists and dramatic poets do. But easy to forget that while
stretching yourself you can easily slip into forgetting you have a
voice. Thank you!

On December 5, 2011 at 11:37am Casey Rush wrote:
This article reminds me of a similar criticism of "writing white"
leveled at one of my favorite poets, Robert Hayden.

On December 5, 2011 at 4:35pm Brobor wrote:
Is it not ironic that most commenters have chosen to describe this
article (and their responses to it) with phrases like "articulate" or
"beautifully written"?

Given the subject of this article, do these expressions add up to head
pats that say, "Well, yezza sir, you done well with this White English" or
"Wow, you can speak right!"?

And, after reading this article, why are y'all writing so stuffily, filling out
pre-made containers with (yawn) soporifics? Where's all the damn
creativity--"Dear, sir . . . "

Anywhooos: Very articulate article, beautifully written, excellent,
thought-provoking, beautiful, thoughtful.

yers truthly,
Brobor

Ol manny cartola above is the one who's said something among these
comments

On December 5, 2011 at 6:25pm Terrence wrote:
Venitia - "My father was a PHD my mother has her Masters but whites assume that I grew up
in some urban locale." So you live in a rural setting?

"I self-identify as an American but oh no - that's not
good enough. I have to be an AFRICAN Americannnnnnnnn...

Sometimes, when I am feeling especially annoyed, I ask
the person what they call an immigrant from Africa.
African-African-American. It all becomes so damn
ridiculous." I agree it is ridiculouos, but I do not see that it is white people who insist on this designation.

Also, I find your reference to "whites" in teh first quote to be off-putting at the least. All whites? Or just some whites? Are white people a monolithic group?

On December 6, 2011 at 3:04pm Outrage Non-white Woman wrote:
Hello, I am very angry with the title of this essay! It implies that only white men can write successful pieces. What about Maya Angelou? The fact of the matter is that there are many non-whites and women that can write and be wonderful at what they do. I will not even read this essay because of the horrible title. I am quite disgusted.

On December 10, 2011 at 4:55pm Eric wrote:
What a great essay! I really liked your links between language, class and
race, and your analogy at the end.

On December 11, 2011 at 4:46pm rachell koegel wrote:
brilliant! it is an important subject and one that does need exploring.
Thank you.

On December 11, 2011 at 7:41pm heath quinn wrote:
A thoughtful piece that shares, with intense resonance, your sense of others' potential perception of otherness in your background.

When you write about writers choosing to become versed a version of English not their own, I can't help remembering how minutely I adjusted my speech and writing, when I was young, to fit into a socially-safe niche.

I'm glad your English is not particularly vernacular. You have more scope for reaching a wide audience, via your neutral language base.

Your thoughts about your annoyance with the voice in your writing are so like my own. Does the critical view need to be about cultural authenticity? Might it be about personal authenticity, extra-culture, extra-class?

Conflating language styles and authenticity with particular cultural (yes, I keep using that word, as I believe it's more apt than "racial") and class backgrounds is a certain fallacy, a burdensome gift from the financially-privileged in the West to the rest of the world. Language styles are learned, not innate. Authenticity belongs to anyone with the courage to live close to their own being.

What allowed old attitudes to prevail for so long was their expression by the individuals in control of what was published, and how works reached audiences. With the digital challenge to publication and distribution channels for arts - on all fronts - the primary notion now is coming to be one of skill. By that I mean how well a writer, artist or musician is able to share what they see and feel: How much richness can we bring into our work, without confusing our audience? How much of each work is wholly of that work, and not bits and pieces of other works? How strong, clean, funny, noble, thoughtful, and so on, is a piece? That's all that matters now. People can judge art on their own. They no longer need distribution-related mediators. Even curators are now becoming viable only if they, too, can really reach their audience.

I'm a woman of mixed cultural background. All four cultures I'm descended from were European, when looked at over a period of a few hundred years. Before that, at least line one was Central Asian. Before that, the same line was Indian. And before that, all four lines were African. More people are aware of the long timeline that ties us all together. Many people have always been aware of it, subconsciously. When people are curious about nationality, they're asking about their own lineage, too. Their questions may be fearful or hostile or accepting or enthusiastic, but they're always really asking something about themselves. We see ourselves in each other. Otherness is a framed mirror. We're all other to each other.

On December 12, 2011 at 10:52am Sorcha wrote:
Fantastic piece. I appreciate that you nakedly face
guilt over your choice of subject matter. It seems
exhausting that you even have to consider it, and I get
the fact of privilege more from that idea than I do from
any other: If you're not the mainstream straight white
guy, you're forced to think about what you are all the
time and confront it not only in others but in yourself.
You must be tired. For all the gorgeous variety of being
in some way Other (and aren't we all, though some of us
somewhat less visibly?) I can appreciate that it would
be so refreshing to be the Same for a little while.

So perhaps I'm insensitive when I say I'm glad you are
not feeling the Same--I'm glad you wrote this piece,
which I'll use in my poetry workshops. I'm glad you felt
this discomfort (I told you--insensitive!) because it
makes me and my kids (the nominally or visually Same)
feel the discomfort in a way that makes sense (must be
your use of the language!) Your discomfort, guilt,
tiredness has a great deal of value for those who are
Other and Same. I know we're all going to be our
relative Sameness in new ways after reading this piece.

Someone commenting said this has been covered before.
Yes. And it will be again. Good.

On December 13, 2011 at 3:41pm mbh wrote:
Sorry, but I must detract from the general enthusiasm of the 'white' bourgeois liberal guilt trippers who praise dissertation material and other academic puffery such as this. Then again, in our publish or perish world, academicians need something to write about, and here is no exception. There is much I can say, but given the limited space, I will share only a fraction of my thoughts. Hopefully, I won’t be booed too much. First of all, what is a 'White Guy' and what does 'HE' write like? Is Mr. Bolina referring to Robert Frost, Robert Herrick, Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady? And since Emily Dickenson was a white gal, is she included? I'm not exactly sure, and I venture that neither is Bolina. I think the problem of race rests more in Bolina's dad's self-consciousness than with those outside him. All nations, and that includes the US, are exclusive and insular to some extent. It all depends upon who got there first and who's in charge. A good example on a micro level is the film Gangs of New York. I don't agree with the 'Bill' and 'Frank' generalization. I have had female bosses, and one of them had the surname Patel. Each situation is different and it's dangerous and unfair to generalize. Whites don't run every show like they did in colonial times. Most of us don't get a break, and many of our dashed dreams have more to do with greed, self-interest and self-preservation than they do with a white guy sticking it to a person of color. When he refers to the 'privileged white class' he could be talking about any of the 2-3% that comprises any given society. India is perhaps one of the most blatant examples of class exclusivity and caste that ever existed. Thailand and the Philippines aren't much better. Does this guy with a philosophy degree actually believe that most white folks have it easy in the U.S. or anywhere? If he does then he has little more than an axe to grind, and he needs to get out of the academy and into the great world. I do like his passing reference to Marx who has a scientific and rational interpretation of society when referring to how race and religion become enmeshed in further dividing the classes and genders. Unfortunately, even in so-called homogeneous societies, certain people, including dark-skinned ones and women, frequently face socioeconomic challenges that their lighter skinned counterparts do not. Foreigners and expats such as me who have lived in other countries, though respected, are kept on the margins of society and never fully allowed to buy in no matter what the price. Assimilation is a process of adaptation and survival all people living in other cultures are required to do at some point if they hope to move ahead and avoid stagnation. Assimilation can be an expensive opportunity cost to mind and heart, but it is the price immigrants must pay if they are to live reasonably well outside their homeland, and even sometimes within it. All of us are sell-outs to some extent. As for a 'standard English' there must be a standard in any language in order for increasingly complex societies to come to some sort of reasonable understanding and agreement with one another. The Italians use Tuscan and the Chinese Mandarin dialects. Call it the language of commerce or the academy, but it must be employed as a medium to some degree. Is Bolina a writer or a minority writer? Ultimately, the litmus test is whether or not he's a 'good' writer or a 'bad' one. As a musician, either you compose and perform music people like to listen to or you don't. No one's going to listen to bad music even if you are attempting to appeal somehow to their extra aesthetic, racial sensibilities. I think Bolina and his dad suffer a bit from Hollywood-itis and a diet of too many Frank Capra films. Passing out cigars at the birth? I'm an ardent cigar smoker and I can't remember ever doing that with a group of white lads. There's no doubt that McWorld with its increasing globalization has made Nike wearers and Starbucks drinkers out of 3/4ths of humanity. However, this has more to do with corporations and their ability to transcend race, class and nation-states more than a bunch of 'redneck' good ol' boys with phony Texas dialects trying to win the Republican presidential candidacy. Much of Jaswinder's essay suffers not from 'whiteness', whatever that happens to be, but from academic culture studies doublespeak. I think the voices in his head are talking too much and they’re not necessarily leading him in the right direction. I am curious to read some of his poetry to see if it is less consciously self-loathing as his argument. As for his suburban upbringing and his current life in Bucktown or whatever trendy Chicago neighborhood he happens to be doing now (are we off to Brooklyn next?), I can only say that he is damned fortunate to have a father who sent him to private schools, thus allowing him to be the kind of person he chose to become. Most of us, including whites, are not given such flexibilities with our lives. As for the naive Midwestern rube who couldn't pronounce your name, my assignment to you, Mr. Bolina is to pronounce Zbigniew Tadeusz Bednarcyzk without the help of a native Polish speaker. Perhaps then, you will be talking like a 'white guy'.

On December 15, 2011 at 7:04pm Terrence wrote:
Thanks, mbh. The essay seems to me to be describing a self-inflicted wound along the lines of, "I'm not white so I feel I should write about that but I don't want to so I am a victim of western people who can't pronounce my non-western name and thus insist on pointing out I am not white." O the horror.

On December 26, 2011 at 12:35pm manny cartola wrote:
@mbh

"white guy" in the title is just titular: give us a break. there is a white --anglo-- brand of american poetry. it is a fully-formed poetics of american identity. this is the emersonian strain (including dickinson because she stayed at home like a good woman should... right?) i pointed this out earlier. and no, white bourgeois academics should not feel guilty. they should however be aware of the poetics of whiteness. and jaswinder is not an "ex-pat," he's american. don't make that mistake.

further, the whiteness of american poetry is a self-aware posturing, self-enhanced in order to define themselves against the non-whites that laid most of the bricks here. hence robert herrick is not included. if you could read between the lines you'd understand we're talking about a poetics of american whiteness that whites themselves manufactured (not the liberal elite colored folks). they did --do-- this so as not to be 'muddied' by other strains, many more authentic to "americana," in fact.

as a professional music theorist i can say your analogy about music is totally wrong. white kids listen to bad rap and hip-hop because of its cultural poetics rather than its (non-existent) musicianship. musicality has little to do with the extra-musical poetics that attract them to this music. if they wanted pure music they'd listen to grisey or elliott carter. also, india as a whole, as with most every eurpoean nation, does suffer from hollywood-itis and this isn't something to scoff. it doesn't make your point interesting. i myself pointed out that this essay was long-winded and, frankly, not that "well-written" as many of the patronizing readers had noted above.

but the final point is don't give us, mbh, that nascar disenfranchised-hardworking-white-guy-against-the- liberal-elite spiel. it is nonsense. the fact about his name is something you missed. yes, his name is easier to pronounce than Zbigniew Tadeusz Bednarcyzk. but your point actually re-affirms the idea which is that people DON'T WANT TO pronounce it. to them it is, like a skin color, earth-dirtier than a folksy polish one you'd find in snowy wisconsin. people can pronounce "looking horse" as a last name of a native american--who often have beautiful poetic names--, but it makes them feel funny to say it.

refute all you will. luckily we dont' have to pronounce "mbh."

On March 2, 2012 at 3:58pm Bucky wrote:
Good stuff man.

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 Jaswinder  Bolina

Biography

Born in Chicago, poet Jaswinder Bolina earned a BA in philosophy from Loyola University in Chicago, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in English with a creative writing concentration from Ohio University. He is the author of the chapbook The Tallest Building in America (2014), and the poetry collections Carrier Wave (2007), winner of the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry, and Phantom Camera . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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